The Ruse-Dennett feud

You may have heard that Michael Ruse has been caught out of school, sharing a private spat between himself and Daniel Dennett with the William Dembski. This isn’t too terribly surprising—Ruse’s reputation has been spiralling downwards rather rapidly, what with all his sucking up to the Intelligent Design crowd in recent years, and I’m half-expecting any day now to hear that he’s become a creationist. In his waning years he’ll be able to replace the legitimate respect of scientists, which he’s been working hard to flush down the sewer, with the fawning and lucrative love of creationists.

I’ve never been much of a fan of Dennett, and I don’t think I even own a copy of Darwin’s Dangerous Idea any more. While I disagree vigorously with many of his ideas about evolution, I think he comes off better in this exchange than Ruse, who spends a lot of time whining about those damned mean atheists.
Jason hits exactly the right note in responding to that, I think.

Now, I happen to share Dennett’s and Dawkins’ contemptuos attitude towards Christianity, but that’s not the part I want to comment on. Rather, I want to challenge this idea that the atheism of Dawkins and Dennett hurts the cause of promoting quality science education.

This assertion is frequently made but it is never backed up with anything. Is it really true that the strident atheism of people like Dennett and Dawkins negatively influences the way people look at evolution? If that’s true, it certainly paints a bleak picture of many religious people. If I argued that I would be symapthetic to evolution, except that I see people like Ken Miller, John Haught and Simon Conway Morris drawing theistic conclusions from it, I don’t think Ruse would show me much respect. After all, evolution should sink or swim on the basis of the relevant evidence. If that evidence is strong, it should not matter what Dawkins or Dennett (or Haught or Miller or Morris) thinks.

Arguing that strident atheism hurts the cause is remarkably condescending towards religious people. It’s saying that they are too emotional to understand and think seriously about the evidence. It’s saying that those people can’t be expected to provide an honest assessment of the evidence because mean old Richard Dawkins made a snide remark about their religious views.

When I encounter people like Ken Miller or Simon Conway Morris I say simply that they are right about the science but wrong about the metaphysical stuff. Why can’t religious people be expected to have the same reaction towards Dawkins and Dennett?

Bravo. Ruse is echoing a common tendency, the habit of trying to hide away the atheists on the side of evolution—it’s also represented by that common adjective, “strident”. You can’t be a plain-spoken advocate for common sense and the avoidance of absurd superstitions, no matter how hallowed by time and tradition, without getting called “strident”, “dogmatic”, and “fundamentalist” over and over again, as well as being told, in more or less these words, to sit down and shut up and quit scaring away the rubes…while every scientist who makes room in his head for a little credulity towards ancient myths is treated as a special gift to the cause of reason. It’s extraordinarily irritating. Can we get a little consistency, please?

We need more atheists speaking out—that’s how we’re going to get people used to the fact that we exist. The fact that we are content to work with the religious, while many of the religious will not reciprocate that tolerance and even some of our fellow scientists want to hide us away, is a good example of who is holding the moral high ground here, and Ruse’s condemnation is yet another reason why I don’t hold much respect for the guy.

An updated book list for evolutionists

A few disclaimers: I do get kickbacks from affiliate programs when you purchase books after clicking through those links. If you’d rather not fund a perfidious atheist’s book addiction, just look up the titles at your preferred source—I don’t mind. This list is not a thinly-veiled attempt to get readers to buy me presents, either; I’ve read all these, so please don’t try to order them for me. Get them for a creationist instead, they need them more.

A while back, I presented a book list for evolutionists. Now I’ve updated it, adding a few recommendations and adding links so you can choose your favorite book vendor. Celebrate the birth of your favorite deity, the astronomical alignment of your choice, or any other traditional historical excuse for a midwinter party by passing along the gift of knowledge.

For the kids:

The Evolution Book (amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Sara Stein. A fine book, but not for the lightweight science kid: this one tries to cover just about everything encyclopedically, so give it to the truly dedicated bookworm.

Life on Earth: The Story of Evolution(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Steve Jenkins. Another encyclopedic illustrated summary of evolutionary history for the younger set.

Illustrated Encyclopedia of Dinosaurs(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). David Norman. Not really intended for kids, but packed with full-color illustrations and detailed descriptions of many dinosaur groups. My kids would spend hours leafing through this one; it’s the dinosaur book I wish I’d had as a 12 year old.

Our Family Tree: An Evolution Story(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Lisa Westburg Peters. Excellent, simple summary of evolutionary history, for the K-3rd grade set.

The Tree of Life : Charles Darwin(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Peter Sis. Nice picture book biography of Darwin for the kids.

From the Beginning: The Story of Human Evolution(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). David Peters. An older book that may be hard to get, but worth it for the wall-to-wall drawings of the organisms scattered along the human lineage, from single-celled prokaryote to modern humans.

For the grown-up layman:

Endless Forms Most Beautiful: The New Science of Evo Devo and the Making of the Animal Kingdom(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Sean Carroll. A phenomenal book; if there’s one book you should pick up for an introduction to evo-devo, this is the one.

Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Matt Ridley. Orac says, “It’s a downright poetic look at each of the 23 chromosomes and what sorts of biological and disease processes genes from each of them are involved in, along with a nice dollop of evolution of the genome.”

Finding Darwin’s God: A Scientist’s Search for Common Ground Between God and Evolution(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Kenneth Miller. Danny Boy says, “A Christian debunks creationism and shows how evolution can be compatible with Christianity.”

Charles Darwin: Voyaging(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll) and Charles Darwin : The Power of Place(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Janet Browne. This is the best biography of Darwin out there.

Science As a Way of Knowing: The Foundations of Modern Biology(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). John A. Moore. This is part history book, part philosophy of science book; if you know someone who doesn’t understand the scientific method, this one will straighten him out.

The Darwin Wars(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Andrew Brown. Much as we aspire to the pure search for knowledge, scientists can be testy and political and vicious, too—this is a study of the sociology of evolutionary biology.

Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Carl Zimmer. If you want a general survey of the history and ideas of evolutionary biology that isn’t written like a textbook, this is the one you want.

At the Water’s Edge: Fish With Fingers, Whales With Legs, and How Life Came Ashore but Then Went Back to Sea(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Carl Zimmer. The focus in this one is on macroevolution of tetrapods and cetaceans. Excellently written, with a very thorough overview of the evidence.

Trilobite: Eyewitness to Evolution(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Richard Fortey. Everything you need to know about the basics of trilobytes, with a chatty and often amusing introduction to the world of paleontologists.

The Beak of the Finch: A Story of Evolution in Our Time(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Jonathan Weiner. A Pulitzer-winning account of the work of Peter and Rosemary Grant in documenting the evolutionary changes occurring in Darwin’s finches in the Galapagos right now.

Taking Wing: Archaeopteryx and the evolution of bird flight(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Pat Shipman. Chris Clarke says, “an excellent and readable treatment of current thinking at printing on bird evolution and the evolution of that instance of powered flight.”

The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe Without Design(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Richard Dawkins. Mrs Tilton says, “both as a general explanation of evolution and as a particular refutation of what has come to be known as intelligent design.”

The Ancestor’s Tale : A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Evolution(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Richard
Dawkins. A step-by-step account of human evolution, working backwards through time.

What Evolution Is(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Ernst Mayr. A survey of the theory by an opinionated master.

Evolutionary Biology(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Douglas J. Futuyma. If you don’t mind reading a textbook, this is one of the best and most popular texts on the subject.

An Introduction to Biological Evolution(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Kenneth Kardong. Another textbook, but less weighty and less expensive then Futuyma’s; a book I’d use in a freshman non-majors course.

For the more advanced/specialized reader:

From So Simple a Beginning: Darwin’s Four Great Books (Voyage of the H.M.S. Beagle, The Origin of Species, The Descent of Man, The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals) (amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Charles Darwin, Edward O. Wilson (Editor). I’ve read these books, but I don’t own this edition…so this is one I’ll be hinting to my wife might make a nice present. It collects the four in one volume, with introductions by Wilson, so if every you’ve wanted these seminal works for your bookshelf, here they are in an inexpensive edition.

On Growth and Form(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson. I’m afraid no developmental biologist can list important books without mentioning this one.

From DNA to Diversity: Molecular Genetics and the Evolution of Animal Design(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Sean B. Carroll, Jennifer K. Grenier, Scott D. Weatherbee. Like it says…molecular genetics, evolution, developmental biology. A good textbook describing the new cutting edge of evolutionary biology.

Shaking the Tree : Readings from Nature in the History of Life(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Henry Gee. GirlScientist says, “This is a collection of scientific papers that were influential in the field for one reason or another.” (I don’t think she intended that her recommendation come out sounding so tepid.)

Extinction: Bad Genes or Bad Luck?(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). David M. Raup. A little statistics, a lot of paleontology, a good introduction to how we try to puzzle out what the world was like from a sparse data set.

The Structure of Evolutionary Theory(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Stephen J. Gould. Massive. Indulgently written. But full of interesting ideas.

Developmental Plasticity and Evolution(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Mary Jane West-Eberhard. Also massive. If you’re already comfortable with the conventional perspective on evolutionary theory, though, this one twists it around and comes at it from the point of view of a developmental biologist.

Biased Embryos and Evolution(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Wallace Arthur. A slim and readable book about evo-devo.

The Triple Helix: Gene, Organism, and Environment(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Richard Lewontin. A slender book that lucidly summarizes the non-reductionist position on modern biology; it’s a call for greater breadth in science.

The Shape of Life : Genes, Development, and the Evolution of Animal Form(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Rudy Raff. Hardcore evo-devo. A little out of date, but very influential.

For the anti-creationist:

Creationism’s Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Barbara Carroll Forrest, Paul R. Gross. The best summary of the sneaky political strategy of the creationists of the Discovery Institute.

Unintelligent Design(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Mark Perakh. Nice, blunt dissection of the pseudo-science of creationism.

Why Intelligent Design Fails: A Scientific Critique of the New Creationism(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Matt Young, Taner Edis, eds. A team-takedown of Intelligent Design’s bad science.

Republican War on Science(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Chris Mooney. Here’s my review; all you need to know about the current political attack on science.

The Counter-Creationism Handbook(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Mark Isaak. Here’s a brief review, but it’s enough to say that this is an indispensable tool for dismissing creationist arguments.

The Triumph of Evolution(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Niles Eldredge. Chris Clarke says, “useful and inspiring, both as a survey of evolutionary thought and a clarion call against creationism.”

Denying Evolution: Creationism, Scientism, and the Nature of Science(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Massimo Pigliucci. Michael Feldgarden says, “It definitely falls into the category of “anti-creationist” and “specialized reader.” I don’t know if it’s a little too complex for the lay reader (I don’t think so). It’s an excellent and well-written rebuttal of creationism and definition of science and the scientific method as it relates to evolutionary biology.”

The Creationists(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Ronald Numbers. Sean Foley says, “For an overview of the growth and role of the creationist movement in America.”

Defending Evolution : A guide to the creation/evolution controversy (amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Brian J. Alters, Sandra Alters. An excellent guidebook on how to handle creationism in the classroom, specifically for biology teachers.

I’ll also add that Coturnix has a book list, too, and if you want a more specialized list, Mike has a list of books just for birders.

Just in case your favorite evolutionist has already read everything in the list, here’s another possibility: bones! Here are a couple of sources of bones, fossils, and casts:

These kinds of lists can go on forever. Please do mention any other possibilities in the comments, and maybe they’ll make it into the next edition.

The image of scientists


Carl Zimmer reviews A Flock of Dodos, and also brings up that worrisome issue, the image of scientists in this country. Cosmic Variance is talking about image, too. Scientists get called “inarticulate”, “high-handed”, “stiff” and “arrogant”. “Arrogant” is terribly unfair as a criticism—a bit of arrogance is a virtue, and is exactly what you need in someone who is going to stick his neck out…and the creationists from Gish to Behe have possessed a superabundance of arrogance themselves.

As for inarticulate, that’s not quite right either. Listen to a talk by a scientist, and while there are many who are wooden, there are also many who are enthusiastic and passionate and funny. I’ve heard Gould and Crick and JZ Young and Ted Bullock and Dawkins and Mike Land talk, and they were terrific; a good science talk is a good story with it’s own rhythms and rules. The problem is that if you put those same speakers in front of a lay audience, the listeners don’t know the language, and the speaker is deprived of a large chunk of their vocabulary. They can charge ahead and speak over the audience and get accused of arrogance, or try to gear down and struggle to explain basic words and concepts that they usually invoke simply by naming, and then they get accused of being inarticulate. Teaching undergraduates is helpful practice, but the majority of our hot, well-known scientists are famous for their research, and typically have light teaching loads. Those of us who do invest a lot of time in explaining things to freshman don’t often have the research clout to warrant the popular speaking invitations.

I sure don’t know where the answer lies. I do know that being a good communicator to people other than your peers or students has just about zero influence on promotion and tenure for scientists. Zimmer mentions the blank stare he got from scientists when ID was brought up, and there’s a good reason for that: it just isn’t an important focus for most of us.

Easterbrook belongs on the Onion staff

I am not a fan of Gregg Easterbrook. He’s a pretentious twit who lectures Hawking on physics, calling him “kooky”, yet thinks Townes is wonderful and believes in an “invisible plane of existence: the spirit”. He makes ill-informed rants against atheists and Richard Dawkins, and has gone off on evolution before —he likes Intelligent Design.

His qualifications for these tirades on science? He’s a sports writer.

In the past, he’s been clear on finding this whole business of natural selection inadequate, preferring to preach that there is a loving god who has directed evolution.

The latter biological possibility is actually one of the reasons TMQ believes that human beings were made by a God who loves us. Why would natural selection have cared about reducing a person’s trauma at death? All natural selection cares about is fitness in passing down genes; if after replicating its DNA an organism dies in pain or panic, what’s that to evolution? In Darwinian terms, there would be no “selection pressure” favoring the peaceful death over the horrible death. Yet there appear to be biological mechanisms that help most people die peacefully. Why are such mechanisms in our physiologies? Maybe because somebody loves us.

Now Easterbrook has a post-Superbowl column in which he takes on evolution again. He’s got a new argument, though: that general evolution and selection stuff that he was arguing against before? It’s to be taken for granted.

That organisms evolve in response to changes in their environment is well-established—anyone who doubts this doesn’t know what he or she is talking about.

I think that’s what a sports commentator would call an “own goal”. Yeah, all that stuff Easterbrook has written on the subject before shows he doesn’t know what he is talking about.

His “new” argument is to insist over and over again that evolution provides no information on the origin of life, accompanied by much protestation that those other ID advocates, who must not be as smart as he is, don’t know how to use the word “theory” and are misstating everything.

Now a know-nothing Utah state representative has proposed this bill that “requires the State Board of Education to establish curriculum requirements and policies that stress that not all scientists agree on which theory regarding the origins of life…is correct.” Hey, Utah state legislature, there are no theories on the origin of life. A few biologists have made wild guesses involving RNA, clay or hot ocean vents, but no scientist has offered anything nothing remotely near the level of a testable theory. (The details on that point) Given the presence of life is so mysterious, a creator God may be why we are here. But please, science illiterates, stop attempting to enact rules about intelligent design; you are ruining the idea.

Oh, and the “details on that point” about models of abiogenesis? He references an article by himself in The New Republic. He’s wrong. There are good theories on the origin of life, and there are scientists working on them…this isn’t a matter of wild guesses.

Easterbrook is hardly worth dissecting, but as I was reading his column, the breathless tone, the skewed point of view, the clueless but confident statements that are almost right but have all the details wrong and show he really doesn’t know what he’s talking about…they reminded me of someone.



I think Gregg Easterbrook is the Jackie Harvey of the Intelligent Design movement.

I’m flattering him. Guess who looks the more intelligent of the two?

Curtsinger on creationism

Kristine Harley attended James Curtsinger‘s lecture at UMTC last night, and passed along an abbreviated copy of her notes. I wish I could have gone—it sounds like it was an informative evening—but living out here in the wilderness, I have to plan those long drives into the Big City with some care.

Curtsinger’s talk was only very loosely organized around the theme of “ten things,” and was mostly a comprehensive overview of the various forms of creationism from Archbishop Ussher (1581-1656) to Michael Behe’s embarrassing performance at the Dover trial. I would say that there were around 20-25 people in attendance, most of them members of the organization and U of M students (unlike me, an alumna). He covered a great deal of historical ground that will be familiar to those of us who know the history of American creationism, which he admitted was, for him, “oddly stimulating, like Victorian pornography.”

He first made the distinction between “young earth” and “old earth” creationists, and described Ussher’s backdating of the earth to 4004 BCE. To the surprise of many in the audience, he mentioned that William Jennings Bryan was actually not a young earth creationist. However, Young-Earth Creationism experience a resurgence in the 1960s with the help of Henry Morris and Duane Gish, men of some learning who came up with the theory of the biblical Flood causing fossils to be deposited through a combination of hydrologic sorting (marine invertebrates that lived in the lower elevations ended up in the lower strata, etc.), differential escape (human fossils were found last because they ran uphill to escape the floodwaters, etc.), and ecological zonation. He went on to describe the various problems with this theory.

He went through the Arkansas “Balanced Treatment Act” of 1981 and the Louisiana Creatonism Act of 1981, both of which were struck down, and the latter appealed to the Supreme Court where it was ruled unconstitutional. He went on to summarize the history of Intelligent Design and the most prominent personalities in the movement (Johnson, Dembski, Behe) as well as Dr. Dean Kenyon and Dr. Chris Macosko, their biographies, their arguments, and the problems with their conclusions.

Curtsinger stated that the real battleground for adequate science instruction in the United States is in the public high schools for one really good reason—the parents of the children who attend these schools have real influence over the curriculum. Curtsinger noted with alarm that, by the time a student has reached the sophomore level in college, his or her beliefs about evolution have been solidified, so that it is imperative that evolution is taught, and taught properly, in our nation’s high schools. While Curtsinger is not opposed to students exploring their own beliefs and values, and asking questions about creationism in a social or historical context even in high school, he notes that 20% of Minnesota public high school biology teachers teach creationism as science, which is illegal.

His most controversial point, that “Evangelical atheists make the problem worse,” was heard with a great deal of openness and even sympathy from this group and from me. I was initially troubled when I read this statement in the online calendar, but came away willing to accede his position. Curtsinger expressed himself well on this point. He noted that this was a very personal concern for him. I do not have the expertise to agree or dispute his assertion that Richard Dawkins “was never a particularly important scientist,” but I cannot disagree that Dawkins is “an aggressive atheist” who does “hit people over the head” with his disgust for religious superstition (how should I deny this when I admire Dawkins for it?).

Curtsinger called Richard Lewontin “a friend of mine, and a very important scientist” who nevertheless has stated (according to Curtsinger) that, “The purpose of science is to eliminate God from human consciousness.” Well, yes—naturally I don’t agree that that is the purpose of science, no matter how much I wish it would happen. Science is not about “Truth” with a capital “t” as is so often proclaimed by troubled deists and other philosophical romantics, so therefore it is not about “disproving God” either, although I certainly think that the methodical accounting for phenomena renders supernaturalist claims more and more dubious. Of course such a statement by Lewontin would “provide ammunition for Johnson,” and for people like him and the Discovery Institute. The group in attendance were, naturally, most if not all atheists, and I do not agree that if atheists disappeared from the earth tomorrow the creationists would likewise go out of business (far from it!) but I took Curtsinger’s point to mean, “Don’t make enemies unnecessarily.” Point taken. There are theists out there who accept the reality of evolution.

Curtsinger wrapped up with a summary on why universities are not generally in a good position to help on the issue. Professors are rewarded for the research, for which they spend a good 50% of their time, and for their teaching, which accounts for 40%, leaving a whopping 10% left for outreach—however one wants to go about doing that. Most science faculty pay little or no attention to creationism, anyway, allowing the problem to fester. What is needed are scientists working together with high school educators and with concerned citizens—atheists and theists alike.

Curtsinger wrapped up with a dig at Pat Robertson’s “God will smite thee” quote, and encouraged everyone to check out H.L. Mencken’s obituary for William Jennings Bryan to see how well it fits Robertson. Curtsinger also stated that he was, with Ed Hessler of Hamline University and Judy Boudreau of Minnetonka, forming the Minnesota Citizens for Science Education. He received a lot of applause and there was a good Q-and-A afterward. I spoke with Curtsinger afterward about our volunteer programs at the museum, in which we partner with the Minneapolis Public Schools to have trained facilitators visit the classroom and lead discussions that employ and teach critical thinking. These programs are arts-based, but I asked Curtsinger if it would be beneficial for universities to have similar volunteers make high school classroom visits to facilitate discussions with the students about science, stereotypes, evolution, and other subjects. Curtsinger seemed very enthusiastic about the idea and I left my contact information with him.

I think the most important point there is that the problem sets in long before the students get to college, and where we need to take action is with public school teachers and parents. I’m glad to hear that there is a science education advocacy group forming, and those three will be excellent people to lead it.

Ha-Hah. Brits are just as stupid as we are!

A survey of British beliefs about the origin and development of life had the following results:

  • 22% chose creationism
  • 17% opted for intelligent design
  • 48% selected evolution theory
  • the rest did not know.

Or how about this result? Here’s what the people in the land of David Attenborough would like to see taught in school:

  • 44% said creationism should be included
  • 41% intelligent design
  • 69% wanted evolution as part of the science curriculum.

Depressing, isn’t it? I’ve got some Guinness in the refrigerator, maybe I should just knock off work early and go home and start drinking.

Chris has reservations about their methodology—but I don’t know. The fact that almost a quarter of the people admit to being creationists is damning in and of itself. Meanwhile, John thinks 30-40% “isn’t a large group opposing teaching evolution”. That makes me wonder if he’s been raiding my refrigerator and all my beer will be gone when I get home.

Then I read that 73% of American teenagers “engaged in at least one type of psychic or witchcraft-related activity”, and I just want to throw up my hands and give up. I’m going to need something stronger than beer.

Isn’t it about time to admit that the strategies of the past, such as being deferential to the nonsense of religion or letting the kooks who dominate discourse off the hook because pointing out their fallacies would be rude, aren’t working? I predict that there will be much finger-pointing at Dawkins and tut-tutting about all those militant members of the high church of evolutionism being to blame, and that there will be further insistence on molly-coddling lunacy to make those willing believers in creationism more comfortable.